1633 David Weber and Eric Flint



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Chapter 42


"Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time," muttered Jeff, peering forward from the bow of the fishing boat, desperately trying to see anything in the darkness through moisture-beaded glasses. "The damn rain doesn't help things any."

"It is a good idea," hissed Jimmy, crouched next to him. "You watch and see." Judging from the tone of his voice, Jeff's friend wasn't any too certain about the proposition himself.

Still, Jimmy—like any proper mountain boy having steeled himself for folly—pressed on, bound and determined to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear. "Besides, the rain's working for us. If we can't see the Spaniards, they can't see us either. And you can bet your sweet ass any Spanish sentry standing on a deck is going to be spending most of his time trying to keep from getting soaking wet."

Insistently: "It is a good idea."

"That's what you said that time we snuck into Mr. Ferrara's lab and swiped—"

"That was your idea too," protested Jimmy.

"I know it was," grumbled Jeff, feeling another cold trickle of rain water starting down his back. "Just like this harebrained scheme was my idea. But what's the point of having friends if they don't restrain you? You're as bad as Eddie and Larry, when it comes to that."

Jimmy eyed him for a moment. Then, smirking. "Well, yeah. But look at the bright side. The most harebrained idea you ever came up with in your life was proposing to Gretchen on the same day you met her. Ha! Had to use a dictionary to do it. And we didn't restrain you then, either. In fact, we were the only ones backing you up, right at first."

That was true enough, of course. But, at the moment, Jeff didn't appreciate being reminded of Gretchen. Gretchen, and her warm and luscious body. Gretchen's smile in the morning—even better, late at night. Gretchen, when—

He yanked the thoughts away. Gretchen was back there, standing on the wharf and staring into darkness. He was here, in the bow of a thirty-foot fishing boat. And if he couldn't see any Spanish ship in that darkness, he could see the pitch-covered cask full of gunpowder sticking a few feet beyond the bow of the boat.

Spar torpedo, he thought sourly. Seems nifty as hell, reading about it in a book. Seemed nifty as hell, too, when we convinced a buncha crazy CoC volunteers to go in with us on the scheme. Now . . .

"Reminds me of that wisecrack I read once. Remember, Jimmy? You and me both thought it was funny. At the time."

A frown came over Jimmy's face. At least, Jeff thought it was a frown. It was hard to tell, between the darkness, the falling rain—not to mention the rain on his glasses—and the shapeless hat Jimmy was wearing. But he knew Jimmy well enough to guess that he was seeing a frown of puzzlement. Jimmy was a smart enough kid, but . . . not fast-thinking. Nothing at all like Eddie Cantrell, that way. Jimmy could and would slowly chew his way through to a problem's right answer, but he always took some time getting there.

"What are you talking about?"

Jeff's lips quirked. "That quote I showed you once. 'Adventure is somebody else having a miserable time someplace far away.' "

"Oh. That one. Yeah." He chuckled. "There was some British actor once—maybe Paul Newman—said kinda the same thing. His idea of adventure was carrying a mug of beer from one smoke-filled room to another."

Jeff rolled his eyes. "Paul Newman's not English. He's American. Why do you always think every classy old actor is English?"

" 'Cause most of 'em are," came the confident reply. "Take a look at Cary Grant. Or Katherine Hepburn. Get past Humphrey Bogart and Jimmy Cagney, that's about it. Well . . . I'm not sure about that Olivier guy. His accent's a little much. I think he might have been faking it. Probably came from someplace in Kansas."

Jeff closed his eyes tightly. Partly to shelter them from the rain, which had suddenly turned into a driving, almost-horizontal sheet. Mostly to dispel the pain.

"There are so many errors in what you just said it makes my head hurt. Besides, I think it was Peter O'Toole who made the wisecrack about the smoke-filled rooms. And if I remember right, it was 'a pint of bitters,' not a mug of beer."

"Um. Yeah, that makes sense. I figure that's why he stuck with Elizabeth Taylor so long. Sure, she's too hefty, but she's English like he is. Or maybe they're Welsh."

Jeff stifled a groan. He started to snarl something, when he felt a hand on his shoulder. He turned his head and saw one of the fishermen who'd agreed to accompany them on this harebrained scheme.

"Push it now, ha?" the man asked, nervously. He gestured toward the torpedo.

Jeff didn't blame him for being nervous. A hundred pounds of black powder perched just a few feet away would make anybody nervous. The fact that the bomb was designed to be set off by a weird American triggering device was guaranteed to make any Dutchman twice as nervous.

That's just 'cause he doesn't understand how it works. I do—which is why I'm twice as nervous as he is.

He felt a powerful urge himself to order the spar holding the torpedo to be run out to its maximum extension. But he restrained it. That extra few feet of distance wouldn't really help that much, in the event of an accidental explosion. Not Jeff and Jimmy, anyway, right in the bow of the boat. And lowering it into the water now, when they had no idea where their target was, would just be foolish.

He shook his head firmly. "Must wait until—" He groped for the words for diversionary attack for a moment. Not long, though. The sophisticated terminology was hopelessly beyond the rudimentary Dutch-German pidgin he was speaking.

"Other sailors," he managed, pointing off somewhere into the darkness to port. "Must wait them."

The Dutch sailor grimaced, but didn't press the point. Instead, he scurried back to the men laboring at the oars. Jeff suspected he'd been sent forward as their emissary. The crew manning the boat was a volunteer force, patched together from a few fishermen, seething at the destruction of their livelihood, and the boldest of the city's apprentices who'd joined the Committee of Correspondence Gretchen had set up in Amsterdam over the past two weeks.

"And that's another thing," Jeff muttered, dragging off his glasses and drying them—well, smearing the water into fresh patterns, anyway—before he jammed them back onto his nose. "In the history books, at least the screwballs pulling off this stunt all spoke the same language."

Jimmy combined a shrug with a shiver. The rain was cold. Naturally.

"What we got. They volunteered. More than you can say for those civic militia assholes."

Jeff didn't say anything. In truth, Jimmy's sour characterization of the civic militia wasn't really fair. Not, at least, as applied to the soldiers themselves. The problem was that the militia's officers were drawn mostly from the city's burghers and master craftsmen. And, like most such, were not inclined toward approving harebrained schemes.

Which is probably why they managed to get rich in the first place. No fools, they.

The only official authority Jeff had managed to convince to come in on the project was two captains of the Dutch navy. What was left of the navy, that is. In their case, both were not even regular officers. Their ships were armed merchantmen, some of the few which had managed to escape the destruction at Dunkirk. Truth to tell, Jeff didn't much like either one of them. Angry men—even nasty, he suspected. But, under the circumstances, their choleric temperaments had been turned toward the Spaniards. Which was good enough for the purpose.

Suddenly, to port, he saw flashes of light that splintered in the droplets on his glasses. They were followed, moments later, by the rolling sound of cannon fire. The sound was muted, partly by the rain and partly by the fact that the cannons involved weren't any larger than nine-pounders. But it was all Jeff needed.

The Spanish fleet in the Zuider Zee was anchored just far enough from Amsterdam to be out of range of the city's heavy artillery, but close enough to blockade the port. Under those circumstances, they were bound to be on guard against a cutting-out expedition. Judging from what he'd seen since the fleet arrived, the Spaniards would have four launches out on patrol, serving as a picket line.

That was the job of the two little Dutch warships. Just get in range and fire off a few broadsides, then scamper—hopefully—out of harm's way. But drawing off the picket boats—or at least directing their attention elsewhere—while the real strike went in.

The "real strike." Yeah, right. The harebrained scheme, cooked up by two American kids out of some books they read on the Civil War.

But he didn't have time to dwell on the sarcastic thought. Jimmy was urgently squeezing his arm and giving it a little shake.

"Look! D'you see it?"

Jeff squinted along the line of Jimmy's pointing finger. His friend had better eyesight than he did, even with his glasses on. Leaving aside the fact that Jeff's glasses were covered with rain water.

He saw nothing. Then . . . It was just a thicker darkness, at first. But, much faster than he would have expected, the darkness congealed into a shape.

"That's it, all right. A Spanish galleon, sure as shit. Good-sized one, too. Okay, Jimmy, we're on. Get the guys up here."

Jimmy motioned urgently. Four of the men left off rowing on the oars and hurried forward. Moving quickly but carefully, they slipped the heavy spar holding the torpedo forward until it had reached maximum extension. Behind them, the men remaining at the oars threw their backs into it. Again, moving a bit slowly—even with muffled oars, no one wanted any noise—but digging into the pulls with as much power as they could muster. The fishing boat began to surge forward.

Jimmy watched Jeff, waiting for the signal. Jeff was studying the distance to the enemy ship, trying to gauge the right point at which to lower the torpedo into the water. Too soon, and the boat's speed would be slowed right when speed was most important. Too late, and the splash might alert whatever sentries were on deck. Really too late, and the whole exercise would be wasted. For the torpedo to work properly, the explosion had to happen underwater.

Part of him, too, was studying himself. All through the night, and the days leading up to this event, Jeff had been . . . wondering. Hoping desperately, really. Hoping that a thing which had happened to him only three times in his life would happen again.

The first time, at the age of sixteen. When, driving his father's car on a two-lane highway through the hills, he'd suddenly seen an oncoming car in his own lane. The stupid idiot had tried to pass a truck on a curve. Jeff had saved his life and his mother's that day, calmly and steadily—not a trace of panic; his nerves like ice—steering his own vehicle onto the shoulder and narrowly missing the head-on collision.

The second time, when he'd come around another curve on his motorcycle and seen Becky Stearns sprawled on the road with Croat cavalrymen about to kill her. Again, without any thought on his part, the ice shield had come down. He'd laid down his bike—almost casually—and slain all of them, never feeling anything at the time beyond calculation.

Later that same day, it had happened again, when other Croat cavalrymen had come smashing into the gym where some of the Americans were fortified. Jeff had killed several of them as coldly as a snake. He'd not even felt anything when he saw Mr. Trout cut down in front of him. Not even, that he could remember, when he himself had been sent to the floor from another saber cut. He could remember being puzzled a little, when he saw the Croat about to kill him have his head split open by a saber in the hands of Gustav Adolf.

That he could handle himself in combat, Jeff knew already. What he didn't know, crouched in the bow of a boat on a dark and rain-swept night, was whether he could do the same thing when the danger did not come upon him by surprise. When, to the contrary, he'd had days to plan for it in advance. Days in which his fear and apprehension could slowly and steadily saturate every nerve in his body.

He was still considering the problem, with a part of his mind, when the other part said—calmly, icily—"Okay, that's it. Now, Jimmy."

The torpedo slid into the water. Jeff watched it disappear into the Zuider Zee until he was sure the warhead was positioned the necessary five or six feet below the surface. Then, again speaking calmly and steadily, said: "Get back, Jimmy. I'll take it from here."

Jimmy started to protest, but Jeff shook his head. "Don't be stupid. It only takes one of us to pull the trigger. You got no idea what that spar's going to do. It could sail back right through you like a spear."

The exact same risk was posed for him, of course. But his voice was so steady, so sure, that Jimmy didn't argue the point. He just nodded, whispered a quick "good luck," and scurried back to the oarsmen amidship.

Jeff hunkered himself down in the bow, getting as far away as he could from the spar holding the torpedo while still being able to see what he needed to see. The Spanish warship was very close now, almost looming above him. It was close enough that Jeff could see, even in the darkness, that the torpedo would strike below the turn of the bilge.

Perfect.

Very close, now. Still, no shouted cry of warning. He decided that Jimmy had been right. On this miserable night, Spanish sentries would be trying to get whatever shelter they could from the rain. Those few of them, that is, who weren't at the rail on the other side of the ship watching the fireworks in the distance.

Now, he closed his eyes and ducked his head. There was no doubt at all in his mind that the torpedo would strike. What remained was simply to trigger the bomb at the right instant. For that, eyesight was useless anyway (fortunately, perhaps, given the state of his glasses), so he might as well protect himself as best he could. Besides, the closed eyes would help him concentrate. It was his sense of touch that mattered now—that, and his hearing. His entire mind was focused on that. That little vibration/jolt/noise which would tell him the bomb had finally touched the hull of its target.

He held the firing device firmly in his hand. It was a simple thing, just a lanyard tied around a stick. One good quick pull—and it would have to be quick—and the jury-rigged firing pin they'd made with the help of an Amsterdam watchmaker would set off the shotgun shell fixed firmly into the bomb at the end of the spar.

His mind saw what amounted to a diagram. Pull too soon, and most of the force of the blast might be wasted. Too late, after the torpedo struck the hull and recoiled, and the same might happen. Or, worse, the spar itself might break, sending the torpedo to the bottom. Jeff didn't really think that was likely—it was a pretty hefty piece of wood—still . . .

He just had time to realize that the ice shield was firmly in place—time, even, to realize that he would never again have to doubt himself, not, at least, when it came to this—when he felt the tremor.

His arm flashed back, all the steadiness of his nerves translated into the speed of his hand.

Afterward, he could never remember hearing anything that even vaguely seemed like an explosion. Just the sudden sensation that Leviathan had risen, roaring its monster fury, determined to consume entire the pitiful boat that had blundered across its great ridged spine. He glanced up—almost straight up, the boat had been driven at such an angle by the dome of water—a bit curious to see how long Leviathan's fangs were. He'd never really believed the illustration he'd once seen in a book.

Later, Jimmy told him the spar had gone sailing overhead. No danger at all, Jimmy claimed.

Of course, he also claimed the spar had landed somewhere in Brunswick. And made the claim, furthermore, while insisting that Katherine Hepburn had to be English. Since, in that movie African Queen, she'd managed to look dignified all the way through, even when she was sopping wet.

Which was more than two scruffy young Americans and a bunch of scruffier Dutch fishermen and apprentices could say—for damn sure—as they desperately bailed water out of their boat while trying to avoid angry Spanish warships in the dark.

That was actually the most dangerous part of the whole escapade, Jeff realized later. But, at the time, he hadn't been afraid at all. Not because of any mysterious quirk in his nervous system, but simply because he'd been too exasperated.

"And that's another thing they don't tell you in the books," he grumbled, pitching another pail of seawater overboard. "It's all a fucking spongy mess."

Jimmy was more philosophical about it. "Beats what happened to the Hunley."

Gretchen was still on the wharf when they returned, along with a small number of other women whose husbands and sons had participated in the mad affair. For obvious security reasons, Jeff had kept the enterprise as much of a secret as possible. He hadn't even seen fit to notify Amsterdam's authorities, and was now finding himself a bit apprehensive about how they were going to react.

Not too apprehensive, and certainly not for long. Gretchen's body and lips pressed against his, her breath coming heavy, was enough to dispel almost anything except love and lust.

"I was so frightened," she whispered into his ear. "I was certain you would be killed."

"I was scared too," he admitted, "until the very end. But don't tell anybody about that part. It'd ruin my image as a geek."

"Stupid," she murmured, her lips back and eager. "You have never been a geek to me. Or the children. Who else matters?"

He found himself agreeing to that sentiment. Though not, of course, verbally. Gretchen's kisses, when she was in the mood, made conversation impossible.

The next day, when the news spread through the city, Amsterdam erupted. The city's populace had been mired in something of a gloomy depression since the siege closed in. Not despairing, to be sure. Dutchmen had been through many sieges since the Revolt began, decades earlier. Some of them lost, to be sure, but more of them won.

Still, they had no illusions as to the price they would pay, even in the event of victory. "Winning a siege," to those experienced at the business, is a bit like hearing that your life will be saved and you'll "only lose a leg."

The announcement of the alliance with the United States had lifted their spirits a bit. But only a bit. It had aroused more in the way of curiosity than hope, really. The fables about the Americans had already spread through Europe—and now, for long enough that most people had concluded they were probably fables indeed. What was known was that the United States was, first, a small nation; and, second, nowhere close enough to render much in the way of immediate aid.

Overnight, that had changed. A Spanish warship lay on the bottom of the Zuider Zee. The force of the explosion, most of it channeled by the unforgiving near-incompressibility of water against the fragile wood, had ruptured the ship's hull. Most of the crew had survived, but the Spaniards had not made more than a token attempt to prevent the ship from sinking. Not after experienced seamen came up onto the deck and described the size of the hole the mysterious explosion had created.

But the city's glee and elation was not really a matter of military calculation. The Spanish had plenty of other warships, after all. True, the blockading fleet had withdrawn a bit farther from the city. Far enough, in fact, to make a few smuggling runs feasible. But only a few. The Spaniards had also doubled the number of launches they set out at night for a picket line.

No matter. The old enemy, now grown so huge and seemingly unstoppable, had finally been dealt a blow. And the fact that the blow itself had been delivered under the leadership of the very small delegation from the United States gave that new alliance a luster it had not possessed the day before.

Jeff Higgins did for that. By nightfall, he was the best-known public figure in Amsterdam except for the prince of Orange himself. And, in all likelihood, even more popular. By noon of the following day, the fledgling Committee of Correspondence in Amsterdam would have dozens of new members.

In mid-afternoon of that day in early October, Gretchen would give her first public speech in one of the city's squares. Most of the hundreds of people who would show up to hear the speech did so because they were curious to see the wife of Higgins, the now-famous American ship-killer. But, by the end, they would be listening to Gretchen Richter.

By the morning after that, the Committee of Correspondence would have another dozen new members. And by the end of that day, Gretchen would have started looking for a suitable building in which to establish Amsterdam's Freedom Arches.

On the day after the torpedo attack, however, it was a time for whoopee. Amsterdam's population poured into the streets to celebrate, the weather having cleared also. Many of them went to the walls of the city, to taunt the Spanish army in its entrenchments.

At Gretchen's firm command, Jeff and Jimmy—indeed, all the members of the U.S. delegation, including Rebecca—were paraded around the city by members of the Committee of Correspondence. The crowds which met these little parades cheered wildly. Even the Dutch gunners manning the great cannon on the walls were grinning.

Jeff noticed that one of their officers seemed a bit gloomy, true. Possibly because his own guns hadn't gained any such public acclaim. Or, possibly, because he came from a noble family—what the Dutch called the ridderschap—and was beginning to suspect that a Spanish ship wasn't the only thing which might be sinking.

If there was glee, there was also tragedy. The crowd had been foolish, often risking too much in their taunts at the Spanish besiegers. Spaniards, of course, were also experienced in siegecraft. So they responded to taunts with taunts of their own. Sixty-four-pound taunts, in their case, iron balls sent sailing into the city. Most of those Spanish cannonballs simply damaged homes and warehouses, but several of them struck the crowd itself.

And, in the case of one, destroyed a family. A Jewish family, as it happened; who, in most wars, would have sheltered in the ghetto. But these were Amsterdam Jews, more accustomed than most to feeling—at least to some extent—a part of the world around them. And the father of the family, like the ridderschap artillery officer, had a sense that the world might be changing.

So, he'd come, a merchant bringing his wife and infant to see the parades. By sheer bad luck, a Spanish ball ranged onto the street just as Rebecca and her little entourage passed by. At the last instant, sensing the oncoming destruction, the man had grabbed his wife and tried to shelter her behind his own body. But a human body is a pitiful shield against sixty-four pounds of iron. The shot cut them both in half, spilling the infant to the ground.

Rebecca—crouching against a stone wall, where the experienced Heinrich had yanked her as soon as he heard the oncoming shot—saw the whole thing happen, almost before her very eyes. For a few seconds, her face turned pale with shock. She tried desperately to control her heaving stomach. Blood and intestines had been scattered everywhere, some of it spattering the wall against which she was sheltered.

The sight of the infant steadied her. The boy was unhurt. His father's body had not protected his mother, true; but that same body—a portion of it, at least—had been enough to cushion the shock of the child's fall. He was lying on the bloody cobblestones, coated with blood himself, wailing his protest at the universe.

Without thinking about it, Rebecca lunged from her shelter, snatched up the boy, and hurried back.

"Idiot," growled Heinrich, pulling her down. "You should have left him there."

She stared at him, clutching the bloody little body. Heinrich's callousness left her as aghast as the carnage.

The veteran mercenary soldier scowled. "Not forever, damn the world. You should have waited—picked him up when the barrage passed." His shoulders, pressed against the stone, moved in a little shrug. "Little chance of another ball striking such a tiny target. What does it matter if the child shrieks with fear? It won't be the last time he does it, be sure of that, not if he survives. Not in this damned world."

When he was sure the firing had stopped, Heinrich immediately rose to add his share of jubilation to the crowd. Rebecca remained behind, still crouched against the wall. If there was no shelter needed against guns, any longer, she still felt a desperate need for the comfort of stone against the world.

"Don't worry," she whispered, "I'll take care of you. I promise."

The boy seemed to be settling down, a bit. Rebecca began wiping the gore from him, using her own dress for a rag. The garment would need to be cleaned anyway, and very thoroughly.

Jeff and Jimmy found her there, some time later. The sight of her, ashen-faced and clutching an orphan to her chest, stripped away every trace of warrior self-satisfaction.

"Aw, shit," said Jimmy. He looked away, his eyes bleak beyond his years.

Jeff's eyes were not bleak so much as simply grim. Nor did he look away. "Next time," he said softly, almost hissing the words, "let's make sure we've got some real torpedoes."


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